Stolen Land, Stolen Labor: The Case for Reparations
Part 2 (Edited and amended)
The Black Lives Matter movement highlighting police brutality has caused an
awakening of White America to the systemic racial injustice perpetrated against African Americans. However, this awakening cannot be limited to the toppling of statues, renaming of military bases and removal of confederate flags.
There has to also be an awakening to the financial brutality that Black people
have been subjected to, starting with the institution of slavery and the part it played in laying down the foundation of this nation. Those who say they did not benefit from slavery because it ended in 1865 and now in 2020, they’ve worked for everything they have. These folks are either ignorant of the role enslaved Africans played in building the nation’s foundation or are
willfully ignoring how the nation’s basic infrastructure and wealth was made possible.
Below is a reprint of Part 2 of Stolen Land Stolen Labor: The Case for Reparations, Part One of which was awarded 2nd Place for in-depth reporting by the New York Association of Black Journalists in 1998.
Here in Part 2 we learn that during the Industrial Revolution, when the nation was being built from the ground up, Black lives not only mattered, they were indispensable to the nation and the world. The work that was done was never paid for. That bill is still outstanding, and it does not include the Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome that is a factor in the gun violence we’re seeing
around the country and is part of the answer to: “Why do they do it?”
We see companies today traveling around the world seeking the most slave-like conditions they can find. Whether it’s 23-cents-an-hour in Haiti or a dollar-a-day in Malaysia, by buying labor so low and selling the output so high multinational corporations like Nike and Disney are market phenomena and widely admired in the financial communities. So, if paying low wages is good, then paying no wages is better. The combination of stolen land and stolen labor at the coming industrial age made the United States the greatest ground-floor opportunity of all time, a ground floor that was constructed and financed by the labor of Africans brutalized to work as slaves.
Historians talk about the Industrial Revolution starting in 18th century England, when the bank profits from cotton imported and made possible by slave labor supported their industrial growth, and the computer/information Age of today. Not acknowledged is the Slave Age, that period of the dark days of the golden age of white supremacy. This was the time when the United States, an emerging nation at the time, dealt most efficiently with a formidable problem: the supply and cost of manual labor to extract the value from the land stolen from the indigenous people.
A headline in the New York Times dated Tuesday, January 13, 1998, reads, “Software Jobs Go Begging, Threatening Technology Boom”. The Times points out “As America relies more heavily on computer software than ever before, the demand for people who can develop and use the tools of the modern age has vastly outstripped the existing supply.” “If the talent drought continues, the entire national economy may feel the effect of lost wages and slowed innovation… ‘This is like running out of iron ore in the middle of the Industrial Revolution,’ said Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.” Mr. Miller is in error with his analogy. Running out of silicone in the Technology Boom, would be like running out of iron ore in the Industrial Revolution. Running out of computer programmers (the workers) in the technology industry, would be like running out of slaves during the Industrial Revolution.
In 1850 The New York Times headline would have read, “Manual Labor Jobs Go Begging, Threatening Industrial Boom.” African-American slaves were the critical workers of the Industrial Age in the United States. In the same way that programmers transform computer code into products, so the labor of slaves transformed raw materials and land into products that would allow the Industrial Age to flourish. Information technology has grown into one of the nation’s largest industry over the last thirty years. Slavery was the largest industry from the time such things were first measured in 1805, until African-Americans were freed to be paid labor in 1865.
At $865 billion a year, information technology represented about 12% of the 1997 Gross Domestic Product of $7,214 billion. In 1805 slave labor represented as much as 20% of the national wealth. By the 1850’s- ‘60’s that figure rose to as high as 40%. If a 12% industry like information technology can affect the entire nation, how much impact does a 20-40% industry have? Let’s take a look at the 1850’s and the effect of slave labor on the economy.
According to J.D.B. DeBow, writing in the Seventh Census 1850 Statistical View, Compendium published in 1856, “The total number of families holding slaves by the census of 1850, was 347,525. (See U.S. Census Table XC below). On the average of 5.7 to a family there are about 2,000,000 persons in the relation of slave-owners or about one-third of the whole white population of the slave States; in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, excluding the largest cities, one half of the whole population.”
In his work, History of American Business & Industry, Alex Groner observes, “In the sense that they were large and complex producing units, the big plantations were the South’s factories. The hundreds of slaves included large numbers of production workers -the field hands- as well as such specialists and skilled artisans as carpenters, drovers, watchmen, coopers, tailors, millers, butchers, shipwrights, engineers, dentists, and nurses…Because virtually entire families could be put to work in the fields for most of the year, the slave economy proved ideal for cotton culture. The price of a good field hand, about $300 before Whitney’s invention, doubled in twenty years. Poor whites, who could afford neither slaves nor land at the higher prices, moved west in mounting numbers and soon dominated the Southwest……It was not only the plantations of the South but also the factories, shipping merchants, and banks of the North whose economies became tied more and more closely to cotton. What north and south had in common was the prosperity resulting from the growth of cotton production. The size of the crop climbed steadily, from 80 million pounds in 1815 to 460 million, or more than half the world’s output, by 1834, and to more than a billion pounds by 1850…..From 1830 until the Civil War, cotton provided approximately half of the nation’s total exports.”
At an average of 400-man hours per 400 pounds of ginned bales of cotton, (based on census averages), these billion pounds required a billion hours of unpaid labor. These were supplied by African-American men, women and children, working as slave labor, under threat of torture and death.
Thus produced, the cotton crop traded hands on exchanges like the largest one in New York. Longevity counts in business, and many banking institutions trace their founding origins back to that time, including Bank of Boston -1784, Brown Brothers Harriman 1818, Chase – 1799, First Maryland Bancorp – 1808, Fleet Financial Group, Inc. 1791, J.P. Morgan, Co. Inc. 1838, to name a few. U.S. Trust of New York in 1853 was only a gleam in some banker’s eye at the time, and Price Waterhouse, the famous accounting firm had just gotten its start in 1849. These banks and other businesses participated in cotton transactions that were all handled as they usually are, for a fee. And so, the brokers, traders, lenders, etc. all profited first. Then came the employees of the firms, the landlords, the washerwomen, the street vendors, messengers, haberdashers, milliners, and all of their families, and mortgage holders and service-providers, in an ever-widening circle.
SLAVE CROPS TOTAL MORE THAN 60% OF THE NATION’S EXPORTS
Now traded, the cotton found its way to 25 of the 35 states and territories for manufacturing. We don’t have to assume how the product was distributed, we can look at the 1850 list of cotton manufacturers. (See U.S. Census Table CXCVI) Here we see there were 1,064 businesses directly employing over 92,000 people across the country. Leading the way is Massachusetts, using 223,607 bales of cotton while employing over 29,000 people. It is also interesting to note that the export of slave-crops cotton, tobacco, and rice, totaled over 60% of all the nations’ exports. This meant that the shipping industry, the dock workers, and the factories on both sides of the Atlantic, all made a living from the peculiar institution of African-Americans working as slaves.
It was possible for people throughout Europe, to work in cotton factories or peripheral industries in their home countries, save their money, and book passage to America. Here, the newly arrived immigrant could get off the boat, and work selling apples on Wall Street to the employees of the Cotton Exchange. A seamstress from English cotton mills, could come and find work making dresses for the wives and mending the coats of the men who worked in the financial district. Maybe you’ve heard stories like these before, told proudly by people pointing to their ancestors arriving with nothing and building a new life.
When an industry produces over 60% of the national exports, it reaches farther than can be seen from the docks or from the fields. And there were other crops as well. There were 2,681 sugar plantations, and 8,327 hemp planters. In 1850 there were over 20 million bushels of sweet potatoes, 3 million bushels of Irish potatoes, 7 million bushels of peas and beans, and 8 million pounds of wool, all produced in slave-holding states. The African-Americans that Europeans called nere-do-well, clothed and fed this nation when the Europeans couldn’t.
GOVERNMENT PROFITS MOST
The government profited most of all. The export of slave-produced crops allowed this emerging nation to import, from the more industrialized countries (with tariffs applied), without incurring a trade deficit. Also, slave-intensive industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and transportation comprised over 60% of the total private production income at the time. In one way or another, this money was taxed. The slaves themselves were taxable as property beginning in 1815. The Federal Government profited by first placing a tax on the slave as a unit of property, and again when taxes were paid on the land the slaves improved. Taxing authorities, whether federal or local, made their money at some point in the trading of cotton and again when salaries found their way into taxable areas.
The government uses a myriad of ways to raise the money it needs to do what it has to do – to build the infrastructure of the nation. To build the roads, forts and pay the calvary and the federal marshals. This was done, in a large part, with slave dollars flowing like an irrigating stream, watering national, state and local governments at various stops along the way. And now today, the United States stands as a money pump with $7 trillion worth of pressure, creating jobs for Joe Blow in Idaho, and millionaires and billionaires with fortunes that span the globe. But it is a pump that was primed with the blood of African and Indigenous people. This is a fact that must be faced and recognized, and white Americans must recognize it first of all.
The paying of reparations is not new to the United States. In the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the United States apologized to 82,000 Japanese Americans unduly imprisoned during World War II and paid them $20,000 each to compensate for their suffering.
The Jewish community demanded that Swiss banks which received deposits of money and valuables confiscated from Jews by the Germans, repay the principal of those deposits with interest. They received Congressional support, had a respectful hearing, and the Swiss banks complied and totaled the accounts. The Jewish Holocaust ended in 1945 with the surrender of Germany. The Slavery period of the African Holocaust, ended only 80 years earlier in 1865 with the surrender of the confederate states.
As we say, that bill is still due and the question is how should it be paid.
What form could reparations take. Cash payment to people is not something that is going to happen, and I don’t believe it would work. What can be done is use programs already in place and fund them as a national emergency. For example, in education have eight students per class in economically deprived areas, increase Head Start and Title 1 programs for disadvantaged students. In health have health care for all, in business development, greatly increase government-related set asides for African American businesses and increase their business development. Increase anti-voter suppression efforts and social security. Many of these programs would also help low-income whites as well to make them palatable and passable in congress.
How to pay for it? Not hard at all. Reforming the tax code so that corporations have to pay fair taxes and maybe hedge fund operators have to do with less than a hundred million or a billion a year in income. The money is there, all that’s needed is the political will to pay the bill.
In recognition of the wrong done, Congressman John Conyers has sponsored a reparations bill in every legislative session from 1989 to 2017. the bill is H.R.40: “A bill to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
And in the Senate, A reparations bill (S.1083) led by U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has reached 12 cosponsors in the Senate.
“This bill would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against African-Americans and make recommendations on reparation proposals for the descendants of slaves.”